Shark Bites, Love Balls and Spelunking in Iceland

Kim has become quite accustomed to my elusive food foraging quests. She has been game for the likes of camel stew, fig moonshine, frog legs, some unfortunate thing in Belize that tasted and looked like cat barf in a pastry shell, tongue on rye and even braved a blizzard for the promise of caribou burgers in Quebec City.

“Will you try the putrid shark though?” I asked as we headed towards the shark museum near Berserkjahraun.

“Of course.”

That’s my girl.

Fermented hakarl (shark) can be found in most grocery stores in Iceland, however, I wasn’t convinced that we’d love it enough to buy a pre-packaged pound’s worth for upwards of $20. A free sample would satisfy, and because the Foss Hotel was shuttered in Dalvik, the shark museum was our only probable tasting station.

For 1,800isk ($8 CAD), our admission to the Bjarnarhofn Shark Museum also included a tasting. I had remembered the boys on Departures grimacing and near-hurling hakarl over the experience—though they had Brennivin chasers to cleanse their palates (a local hooch of fermented potato mash and caraway, known better as “Black Death” or by its English translation, “burning wine”).

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The museum itself was a marvel—a hodge podge of massive whale vertebraes, sheep bones, seal skins, old harpoons, ancient navigational equipment (hello GPS!) and the family fishing boat, circa 1870. Before a motor was tacked on the back, the vessel was rowed by six men which must have been a parallel feat to the pyramids being built.

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There were the prerequisite taxidermied birds and decrepit foxes, shark heads and fins. Really, it was the best touch-me, feel-me display of curios. I was especially drawn to the exhibit that displayed things found inside one shark’s gut—polar bear skin and bones!

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The doting curator hovered around us, at the ready for questions and then reeled us in for the real attraction—shark snacks. After drying in a shed for five months, the otherwise toxic Greenland shark becomes edible with the fermentation process. The species has no kidneys which results in an elevated ammonia level–survival adaptations for a shark that lives almost 2km below the surface.

Cocktail party convo starter: Did you know that sharks have no bones and just a ‘spine’ of cartilage? I love these Jeopardy contestant tidbits.

Gearing up for what everyone had said was a revolting mouthful akin to an ammonia-soaked sponge, rancid blue cheese and feet, Kim and I were both pleasantly surprised. Now, I wouldn’t choose to sit down to an entree of putrid shark, but, it was essentially like a cube of raw fish. Roll it in sticky rice, wrap it in nori, add a dot of wasabi and it would be a hit in Toronto’s Koreatown with a Sapporo.

What next? After visiting the farm’s drying rack with shark bits in various stages of aging, finding some warm love balls seemed appropriate.

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Stykkisholmur was the only place I was able to sniff out the traditional love balls—and indeed, they are full of love. Deep fried tennis ball-sized glories for 340isk ($3 CAD) a pop. The Nesbrud Bakery in Stykkisholmur is a pastry wonderland with several varieties of twists and sugared rolls dunked in severe amounts of icing, and, astarpungar. The dense doughnut balls are a sweet and mildly tart hit of lemon and cardamom. Totally worth the pit stop and shark breath. And if you climb to the old lighthouse overlooking the darling little marina, love ball eating can be justified.

ICELAND 2013 458Now well-fuelled we were ready to climb into Iceland’s underbelly at the Vatnshellir (‘Water Cave’) Caverns in Snaefellsjokull National Park. Who doesn’t want to poke around lava tubes 12 storeys below?

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The spiral staircase painstakingly erected by volunteers and cave enthusiasts takes spelunky-types 130 feet deep. The cave had been closed for several years due to geological ransacking by visitors. In May of 2013, it was privately contracted out to a former mountain rescue guide with 25 years experience. I smiled at his transition—all those years at such elevations, and now, his pursuit in the opposite direction!

At six degrees, you’ll be glad to zip on a fleece and pull on a toque, however, there’s no need to worry about getting slimy, stalactitey, soaked or shat upon by bats. There are no bats in Iceland, and the terrain is solidified lava (which makes for some wobbly ankle terrain en route to Jules Verne’s Centre of the Earth).

The tour is a little bit schmaltzy—Kim was hoping for some fox hole belly slithering routes  or a fear-factor-esue squeeze like our Belize experience, but, it’s rather tame. Regardless, even if you’ve been in dozens of caves, there is no getting used to the unsettling feeling of 100% darkness. Our natural desire ‘to see’ causes such strain and mild panic in that minute of headlamps being turned off.

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Above ground an hour later, we returned to our now-familiar inundation of natural phenomena. Rounding the coast, the Malariff sea stacks instill another 3D postcard. And Anarstapi? Step aside love balls, this 2.5km cliff walk from Hellnar along the stone arches and basalt escarpment is visual balm after being in the dark and damp Vatnshellir caves.

The turbulent coastal waters and frozen lava flows is a surreal sight. Next to the sea stacks of Dyrholaey and the black sand beaches of the south, I really swooned over Anarstapi.

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Rounding out the day of sharks, caves and love balls, we shared a cauldron (really) of lamb soup at The Settlement Centre in Bogarnes after we found accommodations at Ensku Husin, an old fishing lodge.

Iceland was getting seriously deep into our bones. Could we somehow rewind the Ring Road?

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Categories: Eat This, Sip That, Iceland 101, Passport Please | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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